Julie Harwell and Lamont Thomas were treated like celebrities as they weaved through the makeshift marketplace in Buffalo, New York.
Their East Side neighbors greeted them with hugs and words of support. Perfect strangers handed them bags of groceries. Vendors passed them crates full of potatoes, strawberries, blackberries and cucumbers. Some folks simply asked, “Can I pray for you?”
The couple are the center of attention these days, after they avoided a gunman’s wrath in a grocery store while their 8-year-old daughter hid in a freezer.
“I’m not really into grocery stores or big spaces or public places right now. I only feel comfortable right here,” Harwell said as she walked up and down Jefferson Avenue, which resembled a farmers market for much of the week as police closed traffic and residents walked the street freely.
Harwell spoke to CNN days after authorities say an 18-year-old White man invaded the Cold Springs section of East Side, killing 10 people at a Tops Friendly Markets grocery store. The shooting left a gaping hole in the neighborhood because Tops was a hub where everyone went and the only supermarket in a 4-mile radius.
“I don’t know personally if I ever will go back in there,” Harwell told CNN, adding that just walking by the store gives her chills. “I relive that every day of my life right now. I can’t sleep, I can’t eat. It took a toll on my mental state.”
To fill the void, companies, organizations and even professional sports teams have descended on the East Side offering fresh produce, toiletries and hot food. This temporarily eases the burden for families like those of Harwell and Thomas, who now have to figure out where they’ll get their basic groceries going forward.
The traumatized community can’t help but wonder: What happens when everyone eventually leaves? The question comes from a community that has felt overlooked for decades – and the fact that an easily accessible grocery store only popped up within the last 20 years.
“I hope they keep the same energy because I’m still going to be going through mental health issues when the hugs stop and the media stops and the phone calls stop,” Harwell said. “We’re gonna be going through and reliving that day every single day.”
The arrival of Tops on the East Side was ‘a big win’
Buffalo is one of the most segregated cities in America, according to a September 2021 University at Buffalo Community Health Equity Institute report called “The Harder We Run: The State of Black Buffalo in 1990 and the Present.”
Redlining – a form of discrimination in which officials drew a redline around certain, often Black, neighborhoods considered “hazardous” – is a main cause of housing segregation in Buffalo, according to the report. Prior to World War II, Buffalo’s housing segregation was based on where one worked because many low wage workers lived in the industrial East Side, closer to their jobs near the waterfront.
Once World War II ended, things changed. Racist sentiments inspired the belief that the presence of Black people in a neighborhood led to its decline, the report said, thus leading to less investment in and the decline of Black communities in the East Side.
Fast forward nearly 80 years and the effects of redlining in Buffalo are still seen today. The ZIP code that includes the East Side where Tops is located, 14208, is 78% Black, according to the Census Bureau’s 2020 American Community Survey. It is among the top 2% of ZIP codes nationwide with the highest percentage of Black population and has the highest percentage of Black population of any ZIP code in upstate New York.
“The reason this killer, this masochist, this White supremacist knew to go to Tops is because of the social economic order of Buffalo,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said during his visit to Buffalo. “If you had an equal and even and fair city that had services everywhere, he couldn’t have pinpointed Tops. He pinpointed Tops because Tops is a result of the socioeconomic disparities that this country allows and has normalized.”
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said that more than 20 years ago many corporations “refused to come into the community.”
“They cited demographics, income levels, crime, on and on,” Brown told CNN when he visited the with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills on Wednesday to hand out hot meals. “I made the point that the green money in this community was as green as it was in any other community.”
It was Tops that broke the cycle in 2003, finally bringing an easily accessible grocery store to the East Side.
“It was a big win, we felt like, for a place where you don’t really get many wins,” said Averill Dove, who grew up in the neighborhood.
After the shooting, Tops announced it was closing until further notice and residents say it’s like history is repeating itself. Only now, there’s an influx of people who never paid attention to this section of the city showing up to offer a helping hand.
“There’s been a lot of interest in the community the last two days, but where were they prior to the shooting?” Jackie Stover-Stitts, co-owner of the Golden Cup Coffee Company, one of the only coffee shops in Cold Springs where people come to gather, meet and have conversations.
In the days since the shooting, her shop has gotten more crowded not only with residents, but with outsiders.
“It’s easy to say you’re angry and sorry today, but what happens tomorrow?” Stover-Stitts said. “No one’s interested in us until we’re victimized.”
Residents say they feel isolated from the rest of Buffalo
Jewelen “Jewel” Magee loves the East Side, where she’s lived for more than 50 years. She feels it’s the type of community where one can get all their needs met.
“Why go out the neighborhood?” she said on a recent afternoon, walking with a slight limp, aided by a cane.
Magee was running errands late one morning, waving and talking to everyone in her path. On her way to pick up a money order, she knocked on the window of a bank and everyone waved back. Inside the bank, everyone treated her like she was their aunt.
“You didn’t give me my roll of quarters,” she jokingly shouted to one teller.
She smiled and giggled, walking around the Jefferson Avenue marketplace as she received free groceries. She picked up some toothpaste at one tent set up outside the bank.
“It’s four dollars, might as well get it for free,” Magee joyfully said, carrying a Tops tote bag. She stopped by a truck handing out hats and dog tags for veterans, telling the vendors she served in the Air Force. She didn’t want to say when she served because she doesn’t like to reveal her age.
Magee knows the days of free toothpaste will end and that she’ll need a reliable grocery store. She told CNN she plans to shop at a different Tops location that’s about a 20-minute shuttle ride thanks to the grocery company offering free rides.